Willow Creek and Harvest Bible Church Struggle to Move on After Pastoral Scandals

It’s been 22 months since Bill Hybels resigned from Willow Creek Community Church, and the Chicago-area megachurch—one of the biggest in the country—is still without a senior pastor.

The multisite congregation, once celebrated as a model and training ground for Christian leaders, has struggled to transition to steady leadership in the aftermath—leaving the well-being of its eight locations and thousands of congregants at stake as attendance and tithes dip.

In the fallout of Hybels’s departure over sexual misconduct allegations, the esteemed megachurch lost other top leaders: The church’s elders, as well as Steve Carter and Heather Larson, who were slated to be Hybels’s heirs, resigned the same year. Steve Gillen, who has served as interim senior pastor since then, recently announced his plans to step down next month.

And there’s no successor in sight. The new elders said in late January that after narrowing a months-long search down to two senior pastor candidates, they decided to release both and start over. (The announcement came with another blow as elders confirmed claims of inappropriate behavior by Hybels’s mentor, Gilbert Bilezikian, and the church allowed “Dr. B” to continue serving and teaching despite knowing the reports against him.)

The elder board has passed its goal of naming a senior pastor by the end of 2019 but hasn’t announced a public timeline for the continued search, only stating that “filling this pastoral role is the top priority.”

The current tumult at Willow Creek and at its greater Chicago neighbor, Harvest Bible Chapel, showcase how long lasting the effects of a fallen pastor can be.

“Dear Bill Hybels,” tweeted Sarah Carter, whose husband Steve was appointed preaching pastor after Hybels before also resigning when further allegations against his predecessor emerged. “Thank you for the gift of tucking my kids in as they weep & cry over friendships they can longer have, the home they had to leave, & the faith they’ve watched crumble. I give you & your assembly of lead staff & elders full credit for this current experience.”

Carter, who declined to comment for this article, has implored the current Willow Creek elders to “seek truth” and “repent.” She called the church’s mishandling of Bilezikian’s alleged abuse “the great & final breakup” with her former church home.

Initially, attendance was down 9 percent across all locations in the months after Hybels left in 2018. The church reported 21,000 attendees each weekend when it listed the senior pastor job last fall. But internal reports from October and February showed attendance totals around 18,000. (Five years ago, according to Outreach 100, Willow Creek was the fifth-largest church in the country, with a weekly attendance of over 25,000.)

The church’s revenue dropped by a third the year of Hybels’s resignation, from $89 million to $60 million, but its 2019 financial statement has not yet been posted by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA).

Projected revenue targets at the main South Barrington campus have slipped year over year, from $685,000 a week in 2018 to $550,000 in 2019 to $535,000 this year. Six Sundays into 2020, the campus (one of seven) is 26 percent behind budget, bringing in just $2.37 million of a projected $3.21 million in weekly offerings.

The church’s spokeswoman declined to comment on attendance or giving trends.

“It appears the only time the leadership and elders are transparent is when they are forced to be,” wrote Rob Speight, a longtime member of Willow Creek, on February 3. “They get caught in a leadership blunder and they are compelled to make some form of admission.”

Outside of sparse, careful public statements, the Willow Creek leadership has encouraged the congregation to leave the past in the past, with recent sermons emphasizing the need for moving forward.

“Just this weekend’s teaching we were told to ‘let go,’ ‘move on,’ ‘forget the past & move into the unknown,’” tweeted Ann Lindberg on January 5, just two weeks before she wrote a long post on Facebook claiming abuse by Bilezikian, which she had reported to Willow Creek leadership. “How about if we handle the ‘known’ first?”

“Willow has been under a purifying fire, and God is at work,” Lindberg told Christianity Today. “The problem is so many people only see the flames and want the fire to go out as soon as possible, by any means necessary. My heart’s desire for the people of Willow is that they would not allow this purging to result in just dead ashes, but to see this as an opportunity for God to make real beauty, to make his love and purity shine.”

Lindberg urges Willow Creek leadership to practice greater transparency by inviting victims and former leaders like Steve Carter, who left Willow Creek without a non-disclosure agreement or a severance package, to address the congregation. She worries that the church has held back out of fear that more transparency would threaten them financially.

But for her family, “if Willow Creek gave full disclosure, took responsibility, and perhaps got sued, we would be so much more willing to tithe, because that’s a church with integrity,” she said.

Just 7.5 miles down the road from the Willow Creek South Barrington campus stands the Rolling Meadows campus of Harvest Bible Chapel, where another group of churchgoers is waiting for more details from their leadership. A year ago, founding pastor James MacDonald was fired and declared disqualified from ministry by HBC after elders found him to have “a substantial pattern of sinful behavior.” By May 1 of last year, the elder board at HBC had been replaced in its entirety. This year, it will begin the process of hiring MacDonald’s successor.

Last year, under the leadership of Rick Korte, a team called Harvest 2020 began revising the operational structure at HBC with an executive team rather than a single pastor. Initially, the Harvest 2020 team was tasked with managing a reconciliation process with “those who have been grieved by our church,” involving an outside reconciliation firm, according to remarks made last February. By the following month, the church’s lead ministry pastor, Greg Bradshaw, and the Harvest staff had taken over that role.

In late November, the legal firm of Wagenmaker & Oberly released a scathing legal evaluation that cited MacDonald’s “powerful and subversive leadership style,” “development of an inner-circle leadership group through which he could control” the church, “marginalization of broader leadership, particularly the former elders,” and “other aggressive tactics that thwarted healthy nonprofit governance.”

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Source: Christianity Today